Media: The coverage of Zuma was not neutral, but that's not necessarily bad

2009-04-10 00:00

Martin Luther King once said that if you come with no agenda, you will become the agenda. It’s an interesting thought when one looks at allegations about the media coverage of president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma.

Where the media are concerned, the basic assumption of agenda-setting theory is that they focus on certain issues in order to prioritise certain topics, and this attention influences public awareness of the significance of an issue. Advocates of press freedom believe responsible media are a vital part of any democracy, partly because they hold political leaders accountable. The opponents, who are usually in positions of influence in a government, are quick to argue that controls should be put in place as the media are abusing their freedom.

It’s all about power and publicity, and this week’s comments by Zuma, after the National Prosecuting Autority (NPA) dropped all charges against him, came as no surprise.

“We have found that some media institutions and certain think-tanks became willing and active participants in the conspiracy, simply because they disliked the individual being targeted,” Zuma said. “That is regrettable as the fourth estate should actually assist us to expose abuses of power.”

Zuma and his supporters appear to have forgotten a few simple facts. The media tend to work with information they have access to, and the easiest form tends to be leaks, people who deliberately feed them information for their personal or political agendas.

It is interesting that the main leaks from the Zuma camp appear to have been focused primarily on the Independent group. Simultaneous leaks into various news organisations are a little more tricky to analyse, but at the end of the day, South African media have shown a lamentable lack of investigative journalism into the issue, rather following leaks and counter-leaks in an effort to bring news about a major public figure to the attention of the public.

And where coverage of Jacob Zuma is concerned, surely someone headed for the presidency of the country is worthy of media attention?

It is interesting, too, to note that the whole debacle began with an embarrassing public leak.

Media coverage of Zuma began intensifying in 2004 when the Hefer Commission of Inquiry was appointed to investigate allegations that former chief prosecutor Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy (subsequently conclusively proven to be completely incorrect).

The role the media played in the start of this inquiry is conspicuous, according to Media magazine.

It was the result of a story leaked to the City Press by Ranjeni Munusamy, then a Sunday Times reporter and currently a communications consultant running the Friends of Jacob Zuma website.

Her own newspaper refused to run with the report, causing her to take it to City Press. The apparent smear campaign against Ngcuka came after he announced there was prima facie evidence of corruption against Zuma, but that no charges would be laid as yet.

Incidentally, in September last year, in a Mail & Guardian article, Munusamy accused the media of allowing “their publications to be used by the NPA in its political crusade against Zuma”, and that editors “held down the media to let Ngcuka rape it. Over time, the media has become a willing participant in the NPA’s gang-bang.”

But it is important that the ANC does not confuse the conspiracy to bring news about a major public figure into the public sphere, with what elements therein see as a political plot to keep Zuma out of power.

And it is ironic, considering the circumstances, being complicit in a conspiracy against Zuma, either knowingly or unwittingly. What would fair coverage have looked like, in any case?

Blank pages? Columns and editorials devoted to uncritical accolades?

Should South Africa be devoid of any dissenting voices?

Anyway, the average thinking person in the street undoubtedly believes that going into a position of power with unresolved issues hanging over one’s head, cannot be good. Literally thousands of comments from citizens in newspapers and on the Internet indicate that many wish for due process to have been followed, with a general agreement that this would have been in the public interest. One could argue that the real moral issue here is that the leader of the country should be above suspicion, but we are going into a situation where there is much doubt surrounding Zuma’s statesmanship. Would he himself not have preferred a situation where his innocence was proven in a court of law?

Where the South African media are concerned, I would argue that in some cases the coverage concerning Zuma was not neutral ñ but this is not necessarily bad. For the most part, news is reported as it breaks; as events unfold, and as information filters in. Where neutrality is questioned, is mostly in opinion pieces and editorials ñ which by their very definition are not meant to be neutral - and only very occasionally, headlines and the angles used on stories.

•Dr Nicola Jones lectures in media studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

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